Getting a film made

You have to remember that the money-making is what the film busi­ness is about. The ‘deal’ is the real product and the movie is a sort of incid­ental by-product of the deal … “

Alex­ander Mackendrick

Screen­plays are not literary docu­ments but invit­a­tions to collab­or­a­tion. Though you originate the process, you end up one of its least powerful members”.

Charles Deemer, Prac­tical Screenwriting.

If the scriptwriter is the ‘sole original artist’ involved in the making of a film (see “The Role of The Screen­writer“), then he or she is still also only an instig­ator of a complic­ated, fraught and frequently diffi­cult journey towards an end goal: the produc­tion of the film itself.

Reading about the tortuous processes that went on behind the scenes during the produc­tion of even some very successful movies is educa­tional; rarely indeed do things go smoothly, and often it’s a white knuckle ride for all concerned in which success is achieved at consid­er­able cost and compromise. In fact, it makes you wonder how any films get made with the odds stacked so much against them.

You need to constantly keep in mind that the film industry is a busi­ness where (often huge) sums of money are gambled on the prospect of having a success. The chief concern of investors is under­stand­ably there­fore to see a return on their investment.

Their problem though, as William Goldman says, is: nobody knows what sells. The ‘sure-fire’ block­buster sequel bombs horribly at the box-office whilst the small inde­pendent film cleans up — and wins Oscars. It’s a familiar story but it doesn’t stop those with vested interests from chasing after a ‘recipe’ they think will guar­antee a hit.

When you write a script, it’s like deliv­ering a great big beau­tiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and toma­toes. And then you give it to the director, and the director says, “ I love this pizza. I am willing to commit to this pizza. But I really think this pizza should have mush­rooms on it ” …then someone else comes along and says, “ I love this pizza, too, but it really needs green peppers ” … then someone else says, “ Anchovies.” There’s always a fight over the anchovies. And when you get done, what you have is a pizza with everything. Some­times it’s wonderful. And some­times you look at it and you think, I knew we shouldn’t have put the green peppers onto it. Why didn’t I say so at the time? Why didn’t I lie down in traffic to prevent anyone’s putting green peppers onto the pizza?

Nora Ephron in the intro­duc­tion to “When Harry Met Sally”


Readers and rejections

Film-making is like sper­ma­tozoa. Only one in a million makes it.”

Claude Lelouch, Film Year­book 1985

Getting it read

The first hurdle for a screen­writer submit­ting to a film produc­tion company is the person with the job of reading and assessing their script. For a writer with no previous credits or without an ‘inside connec­tion’, that first reader is likely to be someone low down the food chain: a junior script-editor or a free-lancer, often a would-be screen­writer them­selves. They are paid to sort through piles of submis­sions and identify those with promise.

News­flash – this is not the world’s most fulfilling job. Readers are often poorly paid and the standard of submitted work gener­ally varies between dismal and down­right unread­able (believe it or not, a lot of people out there still suffer from the delu­sion that screen­writing is easy and some­thing anyone can do).

No wonder readers get into the frame of mind where they’re looking for any excuse to add your script to the reject pile, simply so they can move onto the next one and make their quota.

(You, of course, are confident that the diamond-like quality of your talent will easily distin­guish itself from the dross surrounding it … may you be right about that).

If your script has success­fully passed through this vetting procedure, it might even­tu­ally reach the desk of someone with the authority to give it proper consid­er­a­tion. Many scripts get no further than this. If you’re lucky, you may get useful feed­back but quite often you’ll be left with no idea why your script was rejected.

It might simply be that it wasn’t ‘good enough’. But it may equally be any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the actual quality of the script: your subject, your genre, the market for it, or even your reader’s personal prejudice.

If you still believe in your script, now is not the time to give up. The fact is that you still haven’t found the person who shares your vision, who is willing to become that first essen­tial collab­or­ator you need in bringing that vision to life. That is the kind of reader you want and your initial quest is to find them.

Writing a script often feels like plan­ning a wedding. You have to plan for success, for it to be the most spec­tac­ular and amazing event. You have to think of every detail so that nothing goes wrong. But, at the end of the day, you have no guar­antee that the bride will actu­ally show up.

And welcome to (devel­op­ment) hell …

Working as a screen­writer I always thought that “Film is a collab­or­ative busi­ness” only consti­tuted half the actual phrase. From a screenwriter’s point of view, the correct rendering should be, “Film is a collab­or­ative busi­ness: bend over.”

David Mamet, “Film is a collab­or­ative busi­ness,” 1989

A film is a carnival of opinion, and if your view is to survive, you need the skills of an advocate. Screen­writing is more lawyering than writing.”

David Hare, The Guardian 2017

Mamet’s comment is cynical and amusing but it also reflects the reality of many screenwriter’s exper­i­ences at the more commer­cial end of the industry: a script is accepted by a produc­tion company but the poor writer is then given the task of endless re-writes to satisfy his paymasters.

This task, known as ‘devel­op­ment hell’, can go on, some­times for years, without the film ever being made.

To make matters worse, during this time, the director and stars who were origin­ally signed up will often drop out and be replaced by others who will then demand fresh re-writes or want to assign another writer to the project. Seeing a long list of writing credits at the end of a film is a good sign that its devel­op­ment was not without problems.

Damned if you do … 

The problem, as Mamet percept­ively iden­ti­fies, is that scriptwriters who are too obli­ging even­tu­ally lose the respect of the produ­cers who hired them. It might easily seem like a no-win situ­ation: if you aren’t flex­ible, or if you are, you can be equally in trouble.

(Perhaps the answer is to identify and then defend to the death what William Goldman calls the ‘spine’ of your story; what you regard as most integral to what you wrote – but only you know where that line can be drawn.)

Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth”

Michael Haneke

The Film-makers

At the end of your quest are the profes­sionals you are entrusting with the task of inter­preting your script. Successful collab­or­a­tion means working in a flex­ible and receptive way towards a common goal.  Your script should provide that. In the best of all worlds, each of them will have some­thing to contribute from their own skills and talents that will enhance what you have written, that will add to it in unex­pected ways.

You need to keep these people constantly in mind when you write because it’s your words that will guide and influ­ence them when they make any number of inde­pendent decisions in the course of getting your script onto film.

This applies as much to the tech­ni­cians as it does to the artists involved in the produc­tion. In addi­tion, there are three people who bear a special respons­ib­ility for how the film will turn out, a trium­virate that makes all the most important decisions:

The Director is obvi­ously an important role, someone who supposedly has the final say on all matters of inter­pret­a­tion and who orches­trates and manages everything that happens on the set. But the director relies heavily on two other people to execute his or her ideas at the prac­tical level; without harnessing their unique skills with his own, he wouldn’t be able to bring his vision to life.

The Cine­ma­to­grapher, or Director of Photo­graphy (D.O.P), controls every aspect of the filming itself; from the place­ment of cameras to the lighting, from the choice of film-stock to the use of camera lens. The even­tual ‘look’ of the film and its prevailing atmo­sphere depend upon the talents of the D.O.P. and famous directors will often use the same one for every film they make.

The Film Editor is the final member of the team. Although he or she (a size­able number are women) doesn’t get involved until the post-production period, their input is crucial. Editing can’t make a bad film into a good one but skilful editing can signi­fic­antly improve any film. An editor takes raw footage and gives it shape; adding pace and rhythm, bringing the drama alive. If that rhythm and drama are evident on the page, the director will help the editor to find it.

 You’ve seen the movie, now read the poster …

From “How To Make Films” Guardian 2010

© David Clough 2010

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